The ceiling is gold, the banquettes are plum, and the curtains are a shade of champagne. (While they look nice, the window treatments obscure a view of the water.) Throw in some music, which is loud, and a few table theatrics, one of which involves fire, and you’ll swear you’re in Vegas, baby.
As you’re led to your seat, you mentally start ordering. The many steamer baskets on the tables suggest dumplings in your future, and flashes of red here and there prompt diners to ask what’s attached to the skewers. (Chicken satay, we’re told.) Promising sights abound. Vegetables glisten on their plates; drinks are chilled with cubes of ice etched with a cursive P. Meanwhile, the audible crackle from a neighbor’s table hints that scallion pancakes should join you for dinner, too. (Which they do, along with a clear dip of vinegar, ginger and sugar and to smiles all around.)
For the most part, the dumplings — filled with pearly sweet shrimp, crisp shredded cabbage or little pork meatballs suspended in rich broth — make you glad to have chosen Philippe Chow for a meal away from home. (Only the chicken dumplings, encased in thick wrappers, fail to please.) To see them is to preview the flavor of some dumplings; ground duck, cilantro and water chestnuts are visible inside their sheer orbs.
A few dishes in, however, it strikes you. Philippe Chow is basically your local Chinese spot in finer clothing. Just about everything I expect from my neighborhood source — walnut prawns, kung pao chicken, crispy beef — makes an appearance on the menu. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, although I’d rather put my chopsticks around, say, the $23 prawns with candied walnuts at Han Palace in Woodley Park than the $34 version at the newcomer on the Wharf. Take away the table lights and the panda-shaped utensil rests at Philippe Chow, and you’re eating similar food. The same goes for the lettuce wraps, which I ordered vegetarian (diced zucchini, mushrooms and water chestnuts in a sauce that tilts sweet) and squiggles of wok-crisped beef, both ringers for something you’d find inside ordinary to-go bags, save perhaps for the addition of carrot sauce to the sweet orange in Chow’s version.
A couple of dishes are head-scratchers. The aforementioned chicken satay, served as a sail on a stick, is the red of something that’s spent time in an Indian tandoor and sports the flaky texture of fish. A peanut sauce made with cream does the appetizer no favors. Even less pleasant is “crispy seaweed,” a dark heap of shredded, fried seaweed seasoned with salt and sugar and garnished with candied nuts. Impossible to neatly eat with chopsticks, the appetizer is as close as I’ve come to eating tobacco. Battered and fried salt-and-pepper calamari nails the desired texture but muzzles one of the seasonings. “Salt calamari” would be a more accurate description. And roasted pork over a neat row of sugar snap peas is a $43 shame considering the dry, thick slices of meat.
Keep reading, and ask for some prawns, a hit in every guise I tried. “Green” prawns cooked in hot oil and bound in spinach-tinted wraps are worthy of the gold chandeliers that illuminate the room. The tender morsels glide to the table on a garden of bright bell peppers, water chestnuts and other vegetables in a lovely wash of chicken broth and wine. The nubby Nine Seasons Spicy Prawns are lit with dried red pepper and warm with cinnamon, cloves, fennel and licorice. Vinegar sneaks into the sauce, too. Like all the entrees, the dish, as polished a performance as any here, can be ordered in two portion sizes, the larger of which is family-style.
The splurge to remember is the Peking-style duck, which you want to order the moment someone takes your drink order, because the feast can take up to an hour to prepare. Before they leave the kitchen, the Long Island ducks are seasoned with five-spice, ginger and scallions overnight; poached in hot water, where they simmer in vinegar and sugar; hung to dry for a couple days and finished in a hot oven. Four cooks are trained to carve the ducks in the dining room, a performance that’s part ballet, part surgery, as flesh is separated from mahogany skin and neatly arranged on a platter. Per tradition, the duck is served with plum sauce and pancakes, made by hand from rice flour and as thin and supple as I’ve encountered them anywhere. (Lettuce cups are a gluten-free option for the wraps.) The show costs $115 but also serves several duck lovers. Any leftovers go home in what might be Washington’s biggest and splashiest restaurant totes, their black and gold colors echoing the establishment’s facade.
Chow spends four to eight days a month in his new restaurant, which is under the day-to-day care of Peter How, who comes to Washington from his boss’s New York kitchens and picked up an early education in his native Malaysia, where his family owns restaurants.
A cumulonimbus cloud of cotton candy signals the arrival of the baked Alaska. A server ignites the purple-palooza, which burns Hindenburg-fast, revealing a dome of chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream and leaving strips of sticky melted sugar on the plate. The fun is all in watching the fire show. The centerpiece is one note, and a curious choice for a Chinese restaurant. If you want something sweet (and superior), the chocolate-peanut-butter “explosion” delivers. Again, not on topic, but the coupling of cake and mousse brings to mind a fluffier, more fanciful Reese’s.
Poised to open other branches in Nashville and Miami, Philippe Chow is one of only a handful of Washington restaurants to help you decide what to wear — or not. Just say no to athletic wear, hoods, beach attire, flip-flops and “excessively revealing clothing,” the website reads. Partner Abraham Merchant says the verbiage is a suggestion rather than a rule; the idea here is to “dress to impress.” Still, there’s a whiff of country club to the idea, per the website: “Philippe Chow management reserves the right to determine if a guest needs to adjust their attire before being seated.”
Everyone I’ve quizzed who’s been to the newcomer offers raves for the interior and mixed reactions to the cooking. Some of the food fits its white china, plates with Chow’s name on them. But much of it would be at home in a white carton at less than half the cost. In some cases, the only thing you’re missing by opting for your Chinese standby over this place is a glitzy bag that emphasizes Philippe Chow’s focus.
635 Wharf St. SW. 202-601-8888. philippechow.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining and takeout and delivery 5 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5 to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday for dinner. Prices: appetizers $12 to $34, main courses $31 to $115 (whole Peking duck) Sound check: 83 decibels/Extremely loud. Accessibility: No barriers to entrance; ADA-compliant restrooms.